I Shoot Fake Miniature Scenes with the Real Milky Way

Breaking the rules and thinking outside the box is something a photographer should always try. You start your journey with photography capturing everything interesting you see, jumping from one genre to the other until you find your favorite style.

I’ve been passionate about astronomy since I was a child, and astrophotography was for me a perfect match. It combined my love for astronomy and my love for nature and landscapes with adventures, travel, and camping. This beautiful recipe is just perfect for me.

That strange mix of fear, excitement, serenity and this awe sense of beauty and meditation is something that deserves the long hours of driving and traveling. That feeling you get when you switch off your engine after you reach your destination, turn off the headlights, look up to the sky, and are amazed by this endless number of stars — a beauty that could never be put in words.

In such places, you can really experience the sound of silence and enjoy it, and the fact that most of such remote locations have no telecommunication network coverage adds to the serenity of the experience and the peace you have with yourself. It liberates you from all modern life constraints and you are finally back to your real humanity, blending with nature and its beauty. You finally feel home.

I went almost everywhere across the UAE, scouting locations, looking for different landscapes and compositions and I was quite lucky to capture some beautiful shots. But like any other passionate photographer, I couldn’t get enough of it. I have basically used all different landscapes with every foreground possibility; mountains, deserts, trees, lakes, roads, cars, etc… I just wanted more than that, I wanted to do something different.

The United Arab Emirates is a mix of two beautiful contradictions; Shiny glamorous cityscapes and raw untouched nature.

There are basically three types of landscapes; yellow-reddish deserts with beautiful sand dunes and “Ghaf” trees, brownish ophiolite mountains known as “Hajar Mountains” surrounding scattered small valleys and rain waterways with green bushes and “Acacia” trees, and a transitional strip which is a strange mix between mountains and dunes.

And because cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi are so busy and active, they happened to emit tremendous amounts of artificial lights, and this is limiting the areas with no light pollution.

There are no countryside villages where you can shoot such houses and cottages. And even if did exist, it wouldn’t be the style that I had in mind.

Blending a foreground from here on a background from there could be a solution, but it isn’t my style and will never be. And above all, where is the fun in that?!

I aimed in this series to create realistic scenes. I also happened to be a collector of antiques and miniatures and I had at that time a small collection.

My next step was to find realistic-looking miniatures, either to build it from scratch or to look for somebody who can do it for you. I went to antique shops, visited art workshops in old districts of Dubai, aiming to find what I want, I looked everywhere on the Internet and ended up with quite a good collection.

I found some garden miniatures on Amazon and some antique boats in old Dubai markets. I came across a brilliant artist from St. Louis Missouri who had a small shop on Etsy and I got myself my little dream house.

Selecting the right miniature with the right landscape was a fun thing on its own, an old abandoned fishing boat would suit the yellow-reddish color of UAE deserts, and a country house would perfectly fit with Hajar mountains in the eastern region of UAE. So I put everything I could carry in my SUV and hit the road.

The moment I started, I realized that the setup would not be as easy as I thought. There are multiple challenges, such as choosing the suitable focal length, the shooting angle and distance from the object, the focus and the settings, and more.

In order to mimic the perspective of a real-life scene, you have to position the object you’re shooting either on the same level or a bit higher than your camera. Getting as close as possible form the object using an ultra-wide-angle fisheye creates this illusion of standing in front of a real life-sized object. And to achieve that, I used the famous Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens and the Rokinon 12mm fisheye.

What I am trying to achieve is exactly opposite to the miniature effect that some use for fun to make busy cities look like toys, it is all about focus, the perception of size and distance is the most important thing that will make this object look like a real life-sized one.

Like shooting macro, shooting multiple shots with differing focus and then stacking it together to end up with an all in focus shot is the way to do it.

Start by focusing on the area in front of the object, then apply multiple focuses on the object from end to end, followed by the area behind the object and so on till you reach infinity.

Someone could just put the house far away in the right hyperfocal distance and shoot single shots. Yes everything will be in focus, but the perception of size will not be accurate, It will still look like a small object.

Moving on to choosing your camera settings — it will be typical astrophotography settings, and if the location is too dark, you either have to increase the exposure on the foreground to get details as crisp as possible or a bit of light paint could do the job.

If the object I am shooting is a house or a lighthouse, I use a very dimmed light source and place it inside, this gives a realistic feeling that it is a real house and it is inhabited.

Shooting multiple photos for the sky and then stacking it up in a star stacking software is even adding more value and beauty to the final image.

Doing something different, thinking outside the box and breaking the trend, adding some abstracts and conceptual thoughts to your photography is what will differentiate you from others. You do not want to be that photographer whose only aim is hoard equipment and excel settings. Photography is a form of art, after all. It is a blessing and for that, I am really grateful to God.

About the author: Samy Olabi is an award-winning photographer based in Dubai. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Olabi’s work on his website, Facebook, and Instagram. This article was also published here.